Alicia Keys, Linkin Park, Nelly Furtado, India.Arie and David Gray are up for the Best New Artist Grammy. Perhaps they should be afraid.
If peer admiration is the best kind of compliment, winning a Grammy is indeed music’s highest honor. Determined by the ballots of those who have worked on six or more commercially produced songs — as musicians, songwriters, producers, engineers or in other capacities — the award overlooks critical non-factors such as record sales or radio popularity to identify “true” artistic achievement.
While this form of flattery doesn’t exactly get you nowhere, sometimes the ride is over quick. Ask some past winners of the Best New Artist award what their Grammy and a buck will get them and they’re liable to point to the McDonald’s dollar menu. For others, walking away with a Grammy leads to a road paved with gold and platinum.
Of the genre-spanning “big four” awards — Album of the Year, Record of the Year, Song of the Year (given to the songwriters) and Best New Artist — expectations hang heaviest on the latter. Like the Rookie of the Year or Heisman Trophy, the Best New Artist award, while recognizing a stellar year, is viewed as a predictor of bigger and better things. And while some have used the honor as a stepping stone, the careers of others have sunk under its weight.
Mariah Carey and Sheryl Crow were each dubbed Best New Artists in the voting years their respective debut albums, Mariah Carey and Tuesday Night Music Club, were released, and while 1990 was the only time she caught Grammy gold, albeit twice (also for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for “Vision of Love”), Carey is 37 times platinum in the eight albums since. Crow added to her glory with six more Grammys and 11 platinum plaques from the three albums that followed her 1994 maiden win.
Early ’80s artists Sade, Men at Work, Culture Club and Cyndi Lauper also benefited from Best New Artist buzz. Sade continues to strike precious metal, with last year’s Lovers Rock certified double platinum, and though the careers of the others faded one or two albums later, it wasn’t before they sold millions of copies and produced a flurry of hit singles.
Conversely, winning the Best New Artist award is sometimes a Pyrrhic victory. For every Carey and Crow, there are those for whom the award marked the apex of their careers.
Big things seemed in store for 1991 Best New Artist Marc Cohn. His “Walking in Memphis” was a hit and his self-titled debut was certified gold at the time of the awards ceremony. Unfortunately for the singer/songwriter, “Walking in Memphis” strode alone. Nothing Cohn released off his two successive albums, 1993′s The Rainy Season and 1998′s Burning the Daze, came close to matching its magnitude, and combined they’ve yet to sell 500,000 copies, according to SoundScan. Marc Cohn reached platinum status five years later, while its creator works as a session player.
Christopher Cross’ “Ride Like the Wind” and “Sailing” blew the 1980 winner into stardom and off the musical map just as quickly. Although his self-titled debut album fostered two other singles, and his “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do),” from the movie “Arthur,” was a hit, his eight albums since paled in comparison to his first LP, which has been certified five-times platinum. Hootie & the Blowfish (1995) and Arrested Development (1992) are among the others whose careers suffered after taking home the Best New Artist trophy.
Recent recipients Lauryn Hill and Christina Aguilera must surely be feeling the pressure as they prepare their post-Grammy follow-ups, especially considering Shelby Lynne’s disappointing après-Grammy showing. I Am Shelby Lynne, the 2000 album that afforded her the award, sold more than 225,000 copies to date, while its successor, last year’s Love, Shelby, has yet to break 70,000 in sales.
While the Best New Artist award can hint toward an artist’s future success, it may also mark the emergence of a predominant musical style. Like Aguilera’s win that punctuated the female teen pop boon of 1999, and LeAnn Rimes’ score in the midst of a country crossover trend in 1996, might a victory for India.Arie point toward a neo-soul happening? Would one for Nelly Furtado reclaim the prize for the light, funky ones? If it goes to David Gray or Alicia Keys, who herself might not be a contender if it weren’t for Lauryn Hill in 1998, would soul-baring be the new rap-rock? Or would rap-rock persevere as a post-modern outlet for aggression if Linkin Park take home the trophy? We’ll have to wait and see.
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